Caramel Cake, and What To Do With Old Papers

I don’t think I can really do much with this recipe, sadly. The brittle page of the book just shattered and the yellowing of the paper combined with pencil writing makes it impossible to discern what is really on the page. So, instead of a recipe today, let’s talk a little bit about archiving.

This particular book was rescued from an eBay sale, but would probably have been thrown in the trash by many. What do you do if you come across an old book such as this? Most would likely throw it out, I’m sad to say. BUT, we’ll acknowledge that most people reading this post have a love of vintage ephemera of various kinds. Most of us use digital recipes and electronic storage (like a pinterest board or file on your local computer). This is good, but doesn’t leave a tangible trail for your family of your favorites as a recipe box or cookbook would. If you are the holder of recipe cards or similar handwritten collection, you might want to be careful to preserve it so your kids and grandkids will know which ones were your favorites – or even laugh over what was popular during your time. My cousin’s kids recently were laughing at all the gelatin based recipes our mothers used. :-)

But I digress. So, prior to about the 1850s, paper was made from linen fibers or cotton, and was called rag. These fibers made paper more flexible and durable, which is why we have lovely ancient books still available for us to view. Sometimes the covers were made from wood or leather, so that helps in book preservation as well. Certainly, what the paper was exposed to will also impact its life span. Also, modern paper making uses acid to break down wood pulp, and that acid degrades paper over time. You have likely seen “acid free” paper marketed toward scrapbooking, because it helps to preserve the life of the scrapbook and the photos within. You can also buy “premium” paper that is made with linen or cotton fibers but unless marked it may still have pulp and/or acid in it.

Modern pulp fibers are also shorter than the rag fibers, so the paper will have more locations to crack and break in between the fibers. Add to that acid that will break down the paper, and then on top of that add any sort of non-moderate conditions, such as humidity, extreme heat (like in an attic), water damage, smoke damage, natural book or paper mold, insects or rodents that may get to it…paper is vulnerable.

Back to the question of what can you do if you come across a book or collection that is antique and in need of rescue. Assuming the item isn’t in a state that prevents you from immediately preserving it (meaning, it’s not soaking wet from a flood), here are a few tips from the National Archives:

  • Wash your hands before handling any document you wish to preserve. The oils in our skin can damage papers, photographs and other memorabilia. Do not apply lotion to your hands either, as this can stain documents and photos permanently. You don’t have to wear gloves for “modern” items (20th century) but the older the item is, you might want to consider cotton gloves to protect the paper.
  • Clear the area you plan to work. A table or countertop is a good space because you can handle your items without intermingling them with other every day items. No food, drinks, or smoking around your documents.
  • Store the items in acid free containers. Do not put photographs into those plastic sleeve or gummed “magnetic” photo albums. The plastic contains PVC which will damage photos and documents, plus they will stick to any gummed surfaces – if you want to remove them, it’s likely your items will be damaged when pulling them off the gumming. Don’t use regular file folders as these are not archival safe. Archival supplies are available for consumer use for a modest price. Don’t put them into ziplock bags, either. These are not acid free or PVC free and can damage your items in the long run. I know, it’s tempting because they are super handy and conveniently sized.
  • If you plan to write on items like photos, use an archival pencil as this won’t bleed through the photo to the front. Photos or papers that you plan to leave “loose” and not put into a photo album or book should be protected with a polyester sleeve. Photos in particular are susceptible to scratching that can ruin the image and even just rubbing against the back of another photo can create an image transfer, wear on the photo surface, and other damage.
  • Make sure the items fit into the storage container and nothing hangs out, flops around, gets folded or otherwise damaged. Remove rubber bands, paperclips and staples as these can damage the paper and even tear it and other documents around them.
  • Digital storage can be accomplished with a scanner. There are many options available but flatbed scanners are the best for paper because they don’t roll a document through the scanner – the scanner lens moves and the paper item remains stationary. The larger the item is, you may want to consider using the scanner on a copy machine, or even professional scanning for very large items. Slides and negatives can be scanned using a smaller scanner that will process the images correctly (this market is kind of a crap shoot, we have had a couple – some good, some not). File naming is important so you can find the file later. For instance, my scanner just automatically names everything IMAGE plus incremental numbers. I have to go back and rename all the files. The more files you have the more important it is to name them clearly. With photographs consider putting the names of the subjects in the file name. Make backups of your digital files, and ensure they are forward compatible, meaning they will work with future software. An MS Publisher file from 10 years ago is no longer supported and you wouldn’t be able to open it, for instance. (If for some reason you are not transferring photos from your phone to a computer or cloud storage, you need to – ever lost your phone and all your photos?)
  • Some people suggest freezing your documents to kill any bugs that may be in the papers. This is also suggested for wool fabric. I haven’t personally done this, but I know many insects and their eggs/larve cannot tolerate cold. Couldn’t hurt as long as the items are protected from any moisture that may enter them in the freezer.

There is a link at the end of this post to the National Archives with tons more information on how to preserve your family documents. My hope is that your gram’s recipes don’t wind up damaged, thought to be useless or otherwise end up on eBay. But I can tell you if they do, I will treat them as my own should I become the owner. ;-)

How To Preserve Family Archives via National Archives at Archives.gov

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